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solar update

Bear with me, because I don’t know exactly what this all means, but I understand the result. PG&E charges us in tiers. “Baseline” tier costs a little more than 13 cents per kWh. If you go up to 30% over the baseline in a billing period (Tier 2), the extra costs around 15 cents per kWh. But if you go 31-100% over baseline (Tier 3), everything over 30% costs around 32 cents per kWh. If you go still higher (Tier 4), the extra costs around 36 cents per kWh.

So the idea with the solar panels, as we planned it, was to bring our usage down to no more than 30% over baseline, because that would eliminate the most costly part of the bill. On the last bill before solar, we spent as much on Tier 3 as we did on Tiers 1 and 2 combined. And we spent about 30% more on Tier 4 than we did on Tier 3. In short, those top two tiers constituted about 3/4 of our bill.

And those two tiers have disappeared thanks to the solar panels. That is, we’re using the same amount of energy, more or less, but a good chunk of it is being created by us, not by PG&E (to say nothing of the excess solar energy we sell back to PG&E), and what electricity we use from PG&E is low enough now that we’re out of the “Tier 3/4” zone.

I’m pretty sure I’ve confused things rather than clarified them. Suffice to say that so far, the solar panels are doing exactly what we were told they would do.

music friday, true randomness

It’s a long holiday weekend, I spent the last two days visiting with family … even this blog takes a break once in awhile. So there is no method to these videos … chosen at random.

I was pointed in the direction of this one by someone who noted that, when Chuck Berry tells Eric Clapton to extend his guitar solo, Eric smiles with surprise and breaks out of the rather staid moment to play a few bars that remind us why he is so great:

That made me think of Ana Popović for some reason … I’m no expert, so I’ll just say she must be one of the best blues artists to come from Belgrade:

The video quality here is crappy, but the audio is fine, and I may have been at this show:

And, what the heck, since this is rapidly turning into my Fave Geetar Tracks:

boardwalk empire, season four finale

There is no use wasting space just so I can say what I’ve been writing for the past four years. Boardwalk Empire is currently one of television’s most admired shows. I like it a lot, myself. It has the feel and look of a movie, and as much as I like to tout the pleasures of great television, there is still something to be said for a show that reminds one not just of novels, but of elegant films. The acting is very good across the board. And I’ve probably written less about it over the years than any show at a similar level of quality.

And I’ve said this every season, and I don’t have any reason to change my opinion now, which is why this post is short, and why most of my Boardwalk Empire posts are short. (The last time I wrote about it, earlier this season, I spent most of the time talking about The Newsroom, a show that bothers me more than it gives me pleasure.) I admire that Terence Winter is willing to kill off important characters if the narrative demands it … part of that is historical, since real people like Al Capone populate the cast, but even fictional characters can disappear, which is something not many series will accept. (Season Two of Empire ended with the death of arguably the most important character in the show, other than the nominal lead, Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson.) Season Four ends with the loss of perhaps the best character Winter has created for the show, and it was time … it was probably time two seasons ago, in that respect Winter kept the actor/character around because it was hard to imagine him being gone. But now he’s gone, and we really care, because that character wasn’t just a finely-honed example of Hollywood excellence.

So, Boardwalk Empire continues to be an excellent series with plenty of interesting characters involved in a scene (1920s Atlantic City) that works well for an audience. And I feel like I’ll be giving it an A- grade until the inevitable falloff. There are worse things on television than a series that consistently delivers an A-. But if I ever figure out why Boardwalk Empire, for all it does well, somehow ends up just short of the pantheon, I’ll be surprised.

blu-ray series #4: robinson crusoe on mars (byron haskin, 1964)

(The “Blu-ray Series” is by request from my wife, who said I had to watch all of the Blu-rays on the shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to, before I bought any more.)

In 1953, Byron Haskin directed The War of the Worlds, an acknowledged classic of 1950s sci-fi. A decade later, Haskin brought some of the same crew, along with a smaller budget, to Death Valley for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I grant you that the idea of putting Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe on Mars seems like a bit of a stretch, yet the film works surprisingly well.

The best way to describe Robinson Crusoe on Mars is to note the things it is not. For starters, it’s not just a cheap bit of drive-in junk (of course, I often enjoy watching such junk). Haskin and his crew are professionals taking on a serious project. Perhaps it seems like damning with faint praise, but any random Saturday night watching the SyFy Channel will suffice to remind us that movies like this are often shoddy in their execution. At times, watching Robinson Crusoe on Mars, you’re taken with a bit of outdated science, and occasionally the social attitudes of 1964 make themselves known. But never do you think the movie is made by incompetents.

Speaking for myself, when I see the word “Mars” in a title, especially from the 1950s or 60s, I expect space battles with laughable special effects and “Martians” who look like Little Green Men. There are no space battles in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and even the spaceships that do appear do their business and get out of the way. Thus, once again, the movie is good partly for what it is not. It doesn’t match the stereotype that I, at least, attach to such projects.

There are plenty of opportunities for lame comedy. There’s a monkey that ends up on Mars with “Crusoe”, and again, expectations are that the monkey will offer up a series of goofy antics for the kids in the audience, something like what Cheetah provided in Tarzan movies. Except this monkey isn’t there for comic relief. For much of the film, she is the only companion of “Crusoe”, and she makes an important contribution by finding water. While the movie is slow at times, and you might find yourself wishing for a little comic relief, the way the monkey is used is another example of what separates Robinson Crusoe on Mars from similar films.

It’s also an unpretentious movie. A few years later, we’d get 2001, full of cosmic spiritualism and unanswered questions about the universe. Robinson Crusoe on Mars mostly avoids this, for the better, in my opinion. Oh, there are occasional references to “God”, but they aren’t overdone.

In fact, what turns out to be surprising is that the title really does describe the movie. Defoe’s character is transported to Mars, with just enough similarities in the two stories to justify the “suggested by” credits. It’s not a movie about a lonely astronaut battling space aliens, but instead the story of a man trying to survive in a world unlike his own. His attitudes reflect his times just as Crusoe’s reflected his. When Friday turns up, “Crusoe” tries to establish a master/servant relationship (Friday is an escaped slave), but the ways in which the two men help each other is more about bromance than about power.

All of this adds up to a movie that is better than you’d expect, one that doesn’t insult your intelligence. It must be admitted, though, that despite my praise for all the things it isn’t, what it is can drag at times, and there is a general lack of excitement. It seems better after the fact than it does while you’re watching. Still, that’s a lot better than the movie turning out even worse than you’d feared. 7/10.

The obvious companion would be The War of the Worlds, a better movie all around. If you want a real crap-fest sci-fi movie from 1964, you might watch a few minutes of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s not exactly science-fiction, but for a satiric look at American attitudes in 1964, there’s always Stanley Kubrick’s last great movie, Dr. Strangelove. What the heck … Adam West is in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, you could just watch a couple of old Batman episodes.

what i watched last week

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (Jim Sheridan, 1989). I was pleasantly surprised at how much humor there is in My Left Foot. It’s all part of the film’s refusal to rely on cheap tricks to make us cry at the poor bloke with cerebral palsy. Well, you could argue that Christy Brown’s life itself demands an emotional response, and Sheridan and company know this. But Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t try to make Christy likable, and Sheridan, while not being didactic, shows us what life in the lower-class Ireland of the times was like. Day-Lewis inhabits Christy Brown so deeply that he is often hard to watch, and his triumphs over his palsy are certainly inspirational. But instead of making a feel-good movie about a cerebral palsy victim, Sheridan has given us the story of a man with cerebral palsy. When the movie makes us feel good, it is earned, not knee-jerk. And Day-Lewis has a way of using his eyes to show when he’s feeling impish. He’s quite the charmer. 9/10. For another Jim Sheridan film, try In America. This is probably my favorite movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, but if you want to see another, how about The Unbearable Lightness of Being? And for a similar movie (at least, according to a web site I checked), I recommend Wit with Emma Thompson. To be honest, I recommend Wit anyway.

The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966). This was my tip of the cap to the 50th anniversary of you-know-what. I tried to think of a movie that fit into that experience, and came up with this, which (spoiler alert) has a very Jack Rubyesque ending. I wrote about The Chase way back in 2004, and I’m going to cut-and-paste most of what I said then.

If I gave you the basic facts, you'd tell yourself it sounded like a classic, and wonder why you hadn't heard of it. The director was Arthur Penn, whose next two films (Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant) would win him Best Director Oscar nominations. The film was based on a novel and play by Horton Foote, who won two Oscars and two Emmys for his writing. The screenplay was credited to Lillian Hellman. The producer was Sam Spiegel, who had won Best Picture Oscars for three of the last five films he'd produced (On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia). Heading the enormous cast was Marlon "Greatest Actor of All Time" Brando. Also in the cast were Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall, James Fox, and even Paul Williams, the guy who wrote all those Carpenters' songs.

How could such a movie go wrong? And I haven't even mentioned the endlessly quotable dialogue, like my favorite, when Brando's Sheriff Calder shows up at a party being given by Janice Rule as Emily, (one of) the town slut(s). Surrounded by a bunch of male party attendees, Rule asks Calder to stick around for the party. "All you need to come to my party," she says, "is a pistol, and you've got one." "Well," is Brando's immortal reply, "with all the pistols you got there, Emily, I don't believe there's room for mine."

Perhaps that quote gets at the guilty-pleasure nature of The Chase, for I realize the above isn't great dialogue as much as it's camp dialogue. Suffice to say that the movie doesn't always work. Take the title, for instance: there's precious little chasing going on. Most of the movie is talk talk talk, as a bunch of drunk racist Texans party on a Saturday night. The action, such as it is, comes mostly in those party sequences, where middle-aged likkered-up Texans say stuff like "let's do the Jerk!" and then proceed to do it right there on the screen. (Meanwhile, Paul Williams, who was 26 years old at the time, plays a wild teenager with a penchant for trouble.) The highlight, as is often the case in a Marlon Brando movie, is the scene where Brando gets the shit beat out of him.

Critical commentary is all over the map, often focusing on reputed production difficulties. (Arthur Penn and Lillian Hellman, at the least, have apparently disowned the film. Hellman said "it is far more painful to have your work mauled about and slicked up than to see it go in a wastebasket.") Kael described it as "Our vines have no grapes left in this hellhole of wife swapping, nigger hating, and nigger-lover hating, where people are motivated by dirty sex or big money, and you can tell which as soon as they say their first lines. Why, even the kids are rotten: they dance." David Thomson thinks it's one of Penn's best films, and thinks it compares well to Spiegel's more prestigious productions: "The Chase will last; Lawrence and Kwai only prove the misplaced faith of respectable taste." The TV Guide review, on the other hand, gives the movie one star out of five: "a terrible disappointment, a jumbled, disjointed film directed feebly by Penn ... without purpose or basic interest ... Redford was so little used that he had to introduce himself to fellow cast members every time he set foot on the set." IMDB votes give it 7.2 out of 10, but 10.7% give it a 10, while another 11.8% give it a 5 or less, and sixty-nine people give it a 1.

The film's potential for audience rabble rousing is perhaps best explained by Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, in his review:

I saw it first with a group of mostly black Air Force airmen, who were on their feet shouting for Brando to start killing people. The Chase also played well to the radicals at the UCLA film school. A hot-headed Ethiopian exchange student (who hated 'the man' and liked to brandish an unloaded gun in the film department's tech office) identified with the Sheriff Calder character as a righteous loner who "should have killed 'em all."

I liked it again, as I always have. It is all of the things people say about it, and in the past, I’ve given it a 6/10 rating because there’s something a bit embarrassing about liking it. But why give in to that stuff? 7/10. For another Arthur Penn movie, I’ll skip past the obvious Bonnie and Clyde … maybe the mid-70s Night Moves? For a lesser-known Brando from the same era as The Chase, try Reflections in a Golden Eye. Again, trying to come up with a lesser-known selection, you might try Spirits of the Dead for Jane Fonda. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t trot out my regular recommendation of Performance, if you’re looking for something featuring James Fox.

Stonados (Jason Bourque, 2013). The latest classic from SyFy, this one is just as stupid as the others. A tornado somehow sucks up rocks, which it then flings back to earth with pulverizing effects. The most clever thing in the entire movie (if it was intended … otherwise it’s just accidentally funny) is when the movie takes Malcolm X literally. Malcolm once said, “We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” Well, in Stonados, Plymouth Rock is ripped from the ground by the tornado, and dropped onto an African-American. Thea Gill from the American Queer as Folk turns up, and she has a great final scene, plus I never watched X-Files, but I’m told the Cigarette Man was in Stonados, playing a guy in a lighthouse. A few months ago, I said of Sharknado that the movie deserved 3/10 at best, but the social angle (it has already been largely forgotten, but for a day or two, Sharknado was big on Twitter and other social media) was so much fun that I gave the movie 5/10. Stonados was like Sharknado without the funny Tweets. 3/10.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). 10/10.

a circular, uninformative discourse on john f. kennedy and me

I suppose I should bring this discussion to the blog.

I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. I never thought JFK was a good president. And I’ve long resisted the notion that Kennedy deserved a special place in our hearts, beyond the obvious point that he was killed while in office. That is a big point, one that impacted a generation. But I don’t see why we need to elevate his reputation as a president, just because he was taken from us too soon.

And so, I wasn’t looking forward to this long weekend of remembrances about the 50th anniversary of the assassination. I thought I’d keep my mouth shut … people should deal with these things however they see fit. My own thoughts tended towards the sacrilegious … I liked Sarah Hedgecock’s Gawker piece, “15 Women JFK Fucked”, which many found to be in poor taste.

Still, there was no avoiding the damn thing, and so I posted the following on Facebook:

Reason #1 why I'm trying to avoid talking about that event from 50 years ago:
I am a self-hating Baby Boomer.
The primary response Boomers have to Kennedy's assassination is to tell you where they were when they heard the news, as if their personal experience of the moment mattered more than the fact that the President of the United States had been killed. You might say that the Baby Boomer Era began that day, when Boomers began to elevate individual navel-gazing over all else.

The key phrase here is “self-hating Baby Boomer”. I have many critiques of Baby Boomers. I also recognize that I am a Boomer, in fact a fairly typical one. Which means I participate in many Boomer notions. Hence, self-hating.

Of course, my concept of Baby Boomer behavior is stereotypical, so I’m off-base before I even get started. I also have a starry-eyed feel for the 60s, and in some ways never got over the collapse of whatever “the 60s” meant. In music, I identified the problem being personified by the singer/songwriter genre, with that genre personified by James Taylor, who I am sure is a fine fellow, but I’m going by the music:

I've seen fire, and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I'd see you again.

(One of the refreshing things about Bruce Springsteen in his early years was that he largely avoided this. He wrote about “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat”, told Wild Billy’s Circus Story, related the tale of Scooter and the Big Man. When he used the word “I”, it was part of a tall tale … “I'm coming to lend a hand, I'm coming to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man!”)

For all of the above, I mistrust the whole “where were you when Kennedy died” enterprise. What people really mean when they ask that is, “hurry up and answer so I can tell you where I was”. But there is slippage in what I wrote on Facebook, a way in which I confuse myself in order to obscure my own complicity. I do believe Boomers’ tendency to turn everything into a story about themselves is one of our least appealing qualities. But I also believe personal experience matters.

My friend Phil called me on this, commenting, “??!! You keep a blog called ‘Steven Rubio's Online Life,’ where you filter all experience through Steven Rubio's Life and Steven Rubio's Memory and Steven Rubio's Everything”. I think he’s on to something. I did say in response that “I do more navel-gazing than anyone I know, but I'm not nostalgic about it. I'm just self-absorbed.” And it is true, I think about myself all the time. I usually ascribe this to my self-absorption, but perhaps it is a manifestation of my Boomerness. I have seen the enemy and it is me. (I said I was self-hating.)

Having admitted that, I’d add that my blog is filled with roundabout ways of talking about my personal experiences, and I do it that way on purpose. I think it is important, when talking about a movie or a song or whatever, that we admit to the ways our personal experiences affect our responses, and I do indeed talk about Steven Rubio in those cases. But the purpose isn’t to use the movie to explain Steven Rubio, it’s to use Steven Rubio to explain the movie. I am not 100% on this, but I try very hard not to expose too much of myself in a literal sense. I want people to know me by my artifacts. I am willing to expose myself only by talking about Bonnie and Clyde. (Which means I really am using the movie to explain Steven Rubio. I’ve outed myself!)

All of this loops around itself, and ultimately, I have no idea what it means, except that I am fooling myself a lot more often than I’d like to admit.

Another friend, Scott, disagreed with my central premise, writing, “Events like these are measured by their impact, and that includes their impact on people's personal lives, and to me it's an honest way to reflect on such events, and collectively it does provide one very accurate measure of the event's impact, no? Isn't this just what people do?” I’m not particularly happy with my reply: “There is no denying the personal impact. But in this case, I think our collective experience (where I was when it happened) leads to our identifying the personal impact, 50 years later, as the actual news story. This means we think of that date in nostalgic terms, and use the assassination as a marker of where things went from good to bad. This lets JFK off the hook. A mediocre president becomes enshrined as the King of Camelot, leading to the deluded notion that everything would have been better if only our beloved King had lived. For me, this is connected somehow to the way we think primarily of ‘where I was’.”

I think I’m just blabbing here, trying to cover my tracks. The reality lies in the second sentence of this post: I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. Everything I’ve said here grows more out of that statement than anything else. I hear the name “Kennedy”, and my anti-Kennedy alarm clock goes off, and I blather away at the same old stuff.

I spend a lot of time telling students not to trust anecdotal evidence, and here I’m going to offer a second-hand anecdote. When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother used to talk to me a lot about politics and social issues. Her great hero was FDR. Now, I’m relying on my memory of my grandmother’s memories, which means I’m so far removed from reality I shouldn’t even be mentioning this. But I don’t recall her talking about the day Roosevelt died. I know from the history books that it hit the nation very hard, even though it was nowhere near as unexpected as Kennedy’s death. I just remember her talking about what Roosevelt did as president, and to a lesser extent, what Truman did with the aftermath. The memories were not “where I was when I heard the news”, but rather, “looking back, I am reminded of why I thought FDR was a great president”. And he would have been dead around 20 years at that point.

It’s a different story from the one that Boomers tell about November 22, 1963. I can’t use memory-of-memories as actual evidence … this is very hazy at best. But it may help explain why a self-hating Baby Boomer would wish the Kennedys weren’t so symbolic. The more we talk about the meaning of the assassination, the less we talk about Kennedy’s actual accomplishments.

music friday, 1963 edition

Specifically, November 22, 1963, since everyone in America aged 50 or older is thinking about that day. These were the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 for November 23, 1963, which is a day later, but as far as I can tell, the dates on the Billboard charts are a bit off, the way a magazine will come out in April and be called the May issue.

10. Los Indio Tabajaras, “Maria Elena”. Recorded in 1958, released in the United States in 1962, and on the charts here in 1963. A version by Jimmy Dorsey hit #1 in 1941. Los Indios Tabajaras were Brazilian.

9. The Singing Nun, “Dominique”. At one point, this made #1. It is often cited as having a calming influence on America after Kennedy’s death. The story of Jeanne Deckers, “The Singing Nun”, is fascinating and ultimately tragic. In 1982, under severe tax problems, she recorded a disco version of the song.

8. Elvis Presley, “Bossa Nova Baby”. From Fun in Acapulco.

7. Tommy Roe, “Everybody”. Released after his Buddy Holly-influenced chart topper, “Sheila”, this was a last gasp before Roe turned into the ultimate bubblegum artist with songs like “Sweet Pea”.

6. Lesley Gore, “She’s a Fool”. Once, at summer camp when I was, I don’t know, 12 years old, there was a dance. I spent the entire night with one girl. They only had two albums, which they played over and over. One was The Golden Hits of Lesley Gore. I don’t remember what the other album was, but I never hear Lesley Gore without thinking of that night.

5. The Impressions, “It’s All Right”. Made #1 on the R&B charts. Probably gets more respect today than any other song on this list.

4. Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs, “Sugar Shack”. Greil Marcus once called this “perhaps the worst excuse for itself rock & roll had yet produced”. (Don’t worry, the Beatles were just around the corner.) As opposed to “It’s All Right”, this might be the song that gets the least respect today of all of the songs on this list. In one of the more confounding moments in Billboard chart history, “Sugar Shack” bumped “It’s All Right” off the #1 spot on the R&B charts.

3. Nino Temple & April Stevens, “Deep Purple”. This was #1 on the charts the previous week. The song came from the 1930s, and made #1 in 1939 with Larry Clinton and His Orchestra. Nino Temple and April Stevens were brother and sister. (More than a decade later, Donny and Marie Osmond charted with their version of the song.) I was going to make a crack about how this was not where the band Deep Purple got their name, but then I looked it up, and sure enough, Richie Blackmore suggested the name because “Deep Purple” was his granny’s favorite song.

2. The Village Stompers, “Washington Square”. I’m no expert, but this must be one of the last Dixieland records to chart this high on the Hot 100.

1. Dale & Grace, “I’m Leaving It Up to You”. Wikipedia factoid: “It was the #1 song when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Dale and Grace were in Dallas on the day of the assassination and scheduled to perform that night as part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars (with Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Clanton, and Brian Hyland), and moments before the assassination had waved to the president's motorcade from a vantage point near their hotel.”

by request: sweet smell of success (alexander mackendrick, 1957)

This makes the request list via the “almost made my Facebook Fifty” movies, which someone said early on I should write about. Sweet Smell of Success was #60 on my list.

Phil Dellio had it at #6, and his comments were on target. He drew attention to the importance of words in the movie: “Sweet Smell of Success is about Clifford Odets’ words--a torrent of them, so caustic and acerbic and insanely funny that you’ll be quoting them for the rest of your life” (after which he quoted quite a few of them). He adds, “The dialogue in Sweet Smell of Success mesmerizes--while you’re dimly aware that nobody you’ve ever met or ever will meet in your life actually talks like that, you enter the film’s world and it washes over you.” It’s a bit like Damon Runyon, except Runyon really stretched the boundaries of realism with his dialogue constructions. As delivered by Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and the rest, the dialogue in Sweet Smell feels immediate and, yes, realistic … it’s not until afterwards that you appreciate what Odets (and everyone else involved in the script) has done to make stylized words sound like very witty people speaking like you or I, only better.

The dialogue is propulsive ... it drives the picture forward, and stomps all over any problems with the plot or the acting of the star struck young lovers. It might work as a remake of My Dinner with Andre featuring Sidney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker, except you need the young lovers to give the two stars a reason to send their vitriol beyond themselves. Lancaster’s Hunsecker is built up gradually; before he actually appears on the screen, we get to know the man by the way others speak of him. Tony Curtis’ Sidney is like an open wound, and you almost sympathize with him at first. Meanwhile, Lancaster probes everyone, finding and exploiting their weak spots. It’s a movie with two awful people at its core … if it played on a double bill with All About Eve, you’d have to shower for a week afterwards.

Watching it again, I was struck by some of the supporting players, especially Barbara Nichols, giving real depth to her stereotypical character. And the movie is more than Lancaster and Curtis … New York, as shot by James Wong Howe, has an appealing sleaze that fits perfectly with the noir-meets-gossip-column milieu. #180 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favorite actors. I had From Here to Eternity at #37 on my Facebook list, so you know I’d recommend that one. I’d also point to Visconti’s The Leopard, a tremendous film. And, of course, Lancaster is so wonderful in Atlantic City. I’m not as high on Tony Curtis, but I’d recommend Spartacus.

(A final trivia note: I mentioned, when writing about Night Tide, “The flute player in the jazz club is Paul Horn, who later gained fame for his album recorded inside the Taj Mahal (and who did the music for Clutch Cargo … I could go on, I better stop).” I bring it up again because Horn was a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet when Sweet Smell of Success was filmed, and the Hamilton group, including Horn, are in this movie, as well.)

catching up: the returned, almost human, agents of shield

Mo Ryan has a piece up, “’Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’: Fall’s Biggest Disappointment”, that makes several good points, as is usually the case with her (“transmits all the joy of an annual tax audit”). I gave the pilot a B+, and spoke of the good will Joss Whedon rightfully gets that means we will give the show a real chance to succeed. That was almost two months ago, and the good will has gradually seeped away. Not entirely … I’m still watching. But that “B+” now looks like a hopeful fantasy.

Ryan also takes it to the new series Almost Human, “a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot has no sense of humor about the fact that it's a cop-buddy drama about a human and a robot.” There have only been two episodes so far, but the show’s problems are already evident. Michael Ealy as the robot half of the buddy team is easily the best thing about Almost Human, but Karl Urban’s human half of the team would seem like a parody if the character had even a little of the humor Ryan misses. Lili Taylor is wasted … it must have taken a lot of work to make Taylor boring. I can’t say Minka Kelly is wasted, because I had no hopes for her in the first place. She would be an irritant if I cared enough to complain. And I didn’t like Fringe, so I don’t even have a Whedonesque fondness for J.H. Wyman. Grade for the two-part pilot: C+.

There is a new series out there that is very good, The Returned. I say “new”, but the show is actually a year old, having been produced for French television and now turning up in the States on the Sundance Channel. It is not an easy show to categorize, although I suppose if you looked on Netflix, it would be listed under “horror” or “thriller”. (OK, now I have to look. The movie the series is based on, They Came Back, is listed under these genres: Drama, Foreign, Zombies, Foreign Dramas, France, French Language (they really want you to know it’s French). I’ve listed this because “zombies” doesn’t strike me as a spoiler … The Returned is so unlike The Walking Dead, it’s a ludicrous comparison. And the zombies (or lack of same … it’s not completely clear there are zombies in The Returned, mostly because the show works on a different level from the usual scare-fest) aren’t the selling point, the way they are on Walking Dead. The Returned is a character story about how unexpected events affect the residents of a small town. Its pleasures are subtle, which is not to say boring … all of the episodes we’ve seen so far are very engrossing. There is certainly a place for the hyped-up excitement of a Walking Dead, and I don’t mean to suggest that The Returned is “good” because it seems arty and precious next to more spectacular series in similar genres. No, The Returned is good for the simplest of reasons: the setting is intriguing, the writing and acting are excellent, and the show manages to avoid stagnancy, advancing our understanding of events at just the right speed. So far, I’d give The Returned an A-, which could easily become an “A” by season’s end (there are eight episodes).

what i watched last week

True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969). Netflix just sent me the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges, and I thought maybe I should see the original first. Sometimes, the Oscars can help us understand a movie, even given the problems overall with the awards. In this case, True Grit was nominated for two Oscars. One was for Best Song (the god-awful “True Grit”, which lost to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” … I’m not a big fan of that one, either, but at least I remember it and could hum a few bars). The other was for John Wayne as Best Actor, and, of course, he won. What does it tell us when a movie gets one Oscar for Best Actor, and no other nominations except Best Song? It tells us that the movie itself wasn’t anything to write home about. The other actors didn’t get nominated. The director didn’t get nominated. The screenplay wasn’t nominated. Not the score, not the cinematography, not the costumes. We can agree that Oscar nominations are often flawed, and still appreciate that True Grit, at the least, didn’t exactly wow the members of the Academy. On the other hand, there’s John Wayne. Rooster Cogburn was his best part in years, and he played the comedic possibilities in the role perfectly. He may have benefited in the voting by the presence of both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight from Midnight Cowboy … the film was highly regarded, won Best Picture in fact, and it’s possible Hoffman and Voight together got more votes than Wayne alone, but in splitting their votes, they left room for Wayne to get the trophy. Whatever. Wayne is just fine in True Grit. But, to demonstrate the follies of Oscar, Wayne had only been nominated twice before for Best Actor. He wasn’t nominated for Stagecoach, or Red River, or The Searchers, or Rio Bravo, all of them better movies than True Grit, and all of them featuring performances by Wayne that surpass his work as Cogburn. So this is what Oscar tells us: True Grit was an undistinguished movie, OK, good entertainment, with a fun performance by the iconic John Wayne that works largely because we know him from his earlier, better roles. 7/10. For something more substantial from Wayne, check out any of the four movies I mentioned above. For a truly great Western from 1969, there’s The Wild Bunch. And Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has its champions, although I am not one of them, and it’s also a Western from 1969.

True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010). Perhaps I can extend the Oscar discussion into this film, which was nominated for ten, but which won zero. If there is nothing in this True Grit that stands out the way John Wayne did in his “give me an Oscar, already” performance in 1969, there is so much quality that it hardly matters. I don’t know that it’s worthwhile to compare the two versions. I’m more taken with the place of True Grit within the work of the Coens. I always feel like I don’t appreciate them enough … I think a movie like No Country for Old Men is very good, but others think it is a classic … I liked The Big Lebowski OK, it’s the cult favorite of all time to its fans. I’m usually impressed with their movies, but don’t always enjoy them (Fargo being the exception, and their best movie, to my mind). True Grit lacks whatever it is that bothers me about them, though … I think it is as good as No Country for Old Men. It just barely sneaks into the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, at #250. 8/10. (I should draw attention to the fact that I am plagiarizing myself without knowing it. This is what I said earlier this year about Barton Fink: “I think of myself as someone who doesn’t much care for the Coen brothers, but looking over their work, it is clear that the more accurate assessment is that I like them, but not as much as some do. Fargo is my favorite of their movies. I thought No Country for Old Men was very good. But the cult movies, like The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple … it’s not that I don’t like them, I do, but I don’t gush over them. I don’t think they come close to Fargo. And once we get to Miller’s Crossing, they’ve lost me.”) For something else by the Coens, obviously I’d recommend Fargo. My favorite movie with Jeff Bridges is The Last Picture Show. For another 21st-century Western, I like The Claim (Michael Winterbottom, 2000).

Private Parts (Paul Bartel, 1972). I thought it was impossible to be surprised by the director who made the infamous Eating Raoul. In that film, a conservative couple takes to murdering rich “swingers” for their money … by the end of the movie, we’re treated to cannibalism. Private Parts, Bartel’s first feature, is darker than Raoul, enough so that it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a comedy, although there are some very funny moments. It deals with voyeurism, gender, gay priests, psycho killers, sex with dolls, decapitations, some of this implied, some clearly shown, all wrapped in a story of a hotel with secrets, which makes the movie a mystery, I suppose. Bartel manages to shock the audience while maintaining an almost jocular tone … none of us have anything to hide, we’re all “perverts” in our own way, which is another way of saying “perversion” is ordinary. The whole thing could be seen as an homage to Psycho, if Hitchcock was funnier and more open about his methods. Produced by Roger’s brother Gene Corman on a budget of about seven dollars, with a cast filled with actors who are largely unknown outside of Private Parts (unfortunate in the case of Ayn Ruymen in particular … she plays the lead and is very appealing). The music is by Oscar-winner Hugo Friedhofer, the cinematographer is Andrew Davis, who went on to direct films like Under Siege and The Fugitive. Baby Boomers will enjoy seeing Chip from My Three Sons in a supporting role. The craftsmanship on the film is excellent … you never feel like you’re watching a cheapie B picture. Private Parts is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re one of those people who especially like stuff that isn’t for everyone, this is right up your alley. 7/10. For other Bartel films, the obvious choice is Eating Raoul. I’m fond of his charming performance in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. There’s not a lot I can recommend that features Ayn Ruymen, but the TV movie Go Ask Alice is a cult film of a different kind, and she’s in it. It’s really hard to come up with movies that connect with this one … how about Sugar Cookies, with Bartel’s buddy Mary Woronov? It’s not much good (I blame associate producer Oliver Stone), but Woronov rises above the material.

Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953). 7/10.

Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993). 6/10.